WEC delays election of new chair following resignation of Republican commissioner

By: - May 25, 2022 6:39 pm
Commissioner Dean Knudson of the WEC (screenshot from Zoom meeting)

Commissioner Dean Knudson of the WEC (screenshot from Zoom meeting)

Dean Knudson, a Republican appointee to the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) and a former member of the Legislature who was an author of the legislation that created the body, resigned from his position on Wednesday ahead of its planned vote to elect a new chair. 

Knudson said his resignation will be effective as soon as his replacement is appointed. Because of the resignation, the body postponed the election so the new commissioner could have a vote in the decision. Knudson’s term runs through 2024 and his replacement will be appointed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). 

Knudson said he decided to resign because of attacks he and the commission have come under since the 2020 presidential election. 

“I’m a conservative first and a Republican second,” he said. “Through over 30 years of involvement in grassroots conservative activism I’ve often been in the position of trying to pull my party to the right.” 

“I’ll put my conservative record up against anyone in the state of Wisconsin,” he continued. “And yet, now I’ve been branded a RINO [Republican-in-name-only]. And it really comes because two of my core values are to practice service above self and to display personal integrity. And to me that integrity demands acknowledging the truth even when the truth is painful. In this case, the painful truth is that President [Donald] Trump lost the election in 2020, lost the election in Wisconsin in 2020 and the loss was not due to election fraud. Election fraud happens in every election, but not large scale fraud. And unfortunately, his close advisers didn’t have the courage to accept the truth of the election, instead believing and spreading falsehoods. And unfortunately, now elected officials, appointed officials and candidates at the highest levels in my party have refused to believe that.” 

Knudson said that because of the attacks against him from Republicans, he can’t adequately represent the party on the body — which is divided 3-3 between commissioners appointed by elected officials of both parties. 

Current chair Ann Jacobs, a Democrat, said Knudson’s decision was “heartfelt” and “brave.” 

“You and I have not always seen eye-to-eye on this commission,” she said. “But I feel we have at our best worked very hard together, across the aisle, to make sure that Wisconsin has fair, safe and accurate elections.” 

The commission’s chair, which switches parties every two years, is responsible for setting the body’s agenda. The chair also certifies the canvass of election results, determining that the results, after being confirmed by local and county boards of canvass, are accurate. 

In 2020, Jacobs’ certification of the results — previously a simple task — was politicized as President Donald Trump tried to overturn the results. In Wisconsin, Trump lost to Joe Biden by about 21,000 votes. 

The delay of the chair election temporarily keeps Republican-appointee Robert Spindell, who announced his candidacy to lead the commission, out of the seat. Spindell has been outspoken in his beliefs that the 2020 election was conducted unfairly and has drawn support from high-profile Wisconsin Republicans — including gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch. 

Spindell was one of ten Wisconsin Republicans to cast an electoral college ballot for Trump in 2020, even though Biden won the state. These so-called fraudulent electors have been accused of election fraud and last week were sued by the progressive legal firm Law Forward on behalf of two of the real electors. 

The plan to cast Electoral College votes for Trump was devised by a number of pro-Trump lawyers and was part of the series of events that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

The fraudulent electors have been the subject of complaints filed at the WEC, meaning that Spindell himself had a vote to determine if he should face consequences for casting the vote. 

Spindell has also repeatedly suggested the 2020 election was unfairly decided. In the months after the election, he appeared at a rally at the state Capitol in Madison with MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. The organizers of that rally played an influential role in the Jan. 6 rally in Washington D.C. 

In the run-up to the 2020 election, the Wisconsin Examiner found that Spindell was advising the Green Party as it attempted to gain access to the presidential ballot. The Green Party had missed a filing deadline and was denied access, but Spindell suggested lawyers for the party file a lawsuit against that decision in the hope that their inclusion would split the Democratic vote. 

In a speech advocating for his election as chair, Spindell said he believes the WEC should be more transparent, cooperate with investigations into the 2020 election and better address Republican concerns about election administration. 

“I believe I can do the best job as chairman of this besieged organization by ensuring that transparency is the name of the game,” he said.

Knudson’s resignation and the imminent change in leadership comes as Wisconsin Republicans have increasingly attacked the agency. Every Republican candidate for governor has vowed to disband the body if elected. 

Tim Michels, a newcomer to the race, was previously the only candidate who was against doing away with the commission — which was created by the Republican-held Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2015. Michels had previously said he favored reforming the agency but on Wednesday said that the election of a new chair should be its last. 

“I’m a builder. My first instinct is not to blow things up. After witnessing the dysfunction at the Wisconsin Elections Commission, I knew drastic reforms were necessary,” Michels said in a statement. “I had been a strong supporter of the Walker-Kleefisch administration and had thought the structure of their creation was still salvageable. In the month since I’ve been crisscrossing the state on this campaign, I’ve heard from many who appreciate my business-like approach but believed the WEC was simply too fundamentally flawed from the beginning.

“At the Republican Party of Wisconsin Convention this weekend, I may have only given a 12 minute speech, but I spent the better part of two days hearing from delegates on a variety of issues,” he continued. “In fact, I spoke at length with Bob Spindell about this as well. So, while this evolution may be uncommon in politics, I’m not a politician. I’ve come to the conclusion the WEC is not salvageable. To have non-elected officials overseeing the administration of elections has proven to be fundamentally flawed. I do not want to empower Attorney General Josh Kaul, who was Hillary Clinton’s lawyer, or Doug LaFollette who has been the Secretary of State forever. But when I’m governor, WEC will be history. I was a strong supporter of Scott Walker, but the creation of WEC was a huge mistake.”

Spindell said in his speech that he thought the agency was the best way to administer elections in an evenly divided state. 

The WEC is next scheduled to meet June 10 to decide which candidates for this year’s fall elections have gained access to the ballot. Historically, the new chair is decided before the ballot access meeting so the election for a new chair will take place before that item is taken up.


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Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.